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The Calm, Wise Voice in the Room

After more than three decades at the Institute, provost L. Rafael Reif becomes MIT’s 17th president.

When the thunder of applause that greeted him finally subsided, L. Rafael Reif stood before the MIT community in 10-250 on the day the Corporation elected him MIT’s 17th president and made a confession. “I cannot tell you that this is a dream come true,” he said, “because this is a dream I never dared to imagine.”

The son of Eastern European émigrés who fled to South America in the late 1930s, Leo Rafael Reif grew up in Venezuela and spoke little English when he arrived at Stanford University for graduate school in 1974. “My story is not too different from that of many of you,” he said, describing his family as “wealthy in integrity and principles and values, but poor in everything material.” Although he’d intended to return to Venezuela, a twist of fate brought him to MIT—and the Institute has been his intellectual home for the past three decades.

A leading microelectronics researcher who has helped tackle the technical challenges in the quest for ever-smaller electronic devices, Reif (pronounced “rife”) directed MIT’s Microsystems Technology Laboratories from 1990 to 1999, served as associate head of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science—MIT’s largest academic department—from 1999 to 2004, and then chaired the department before becoming provost in August 2005. As provost, he helped MIT weather the economic downturn, oversaw partnerships with governments and foundations to create four new research centers and universities worldwide, promoted a major faculty-led effort to address race and diversity challenges, and led the development of MITx, a pioneering online-education initiative announced in December.

Reif’s quintessential MIT story begins a promising new chapter on July 2, his first official day as the Institute’s president.

“He’s a great choice,” says former longtime faculty member ­Steven Lerman ’72, SM ’73, PhD ’75, who as MIT’s vice chancellor and dean of graduate education worked closely with Reif before becoming provost of George Washington University in 2010. “Rafael is someone with great wisdom and great judgment who reflects all of the fundamental values of MIT. He knows the place incredibly well and can hit the ground running.”

Reif’s current MIT colleagues share Lerman’s enthusiasm. Physics professor Claude Canizares, who serves as associate provost and vice president for research, calls Reif “an absolute first-class gentleman and human being,” adding, “He really cares about the well-being of others and of the MIT community.” Deborah ­Fitzgerald, dean of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, describes working with him as “fabulous.” “He always makes the deans feel it’s his job to help the deans do their job. That’s such a wonderful thing to have in a boss,” she says. “I couldn’t be more happy he’s going to be president.”

“A place I call home”
In his first remarks to the MIT community as president-elect, Reif described MIT as “a place I call home”—one “that nurtured me and made possible my dream for a better life.” The MIT community perceives the Institute as “an extended family of curious, creative individuals who collaborate daily with each other to advance MIT’s mission,” he said. “I am one of them.”

Reif didn’t always see the Institute that way, as he recalled in his election-afternoon address: when he was first invited to apply for a faculty position after earning his PhD at Stanford in 1979, he wasn’t especially interested. “After all,” he said, to laughter, “I had seen pictures of the Blizzard of 1978.” 

But the MIT professor who chaired the faculty search committee began calling Reif every other night, trying to convince him to interview. “What are the chances that if you came to interview at MIT, you might like it?” Reif remembered him asking. “I didn’t want to say ‘Zero’—I didn’t want to offend him. So I said, ‘Five percent.’ He said, ‘Five percent is not zero—why don’t you come?’” Reif figured he’d go ahead with the interview for a chance to visit his brother, who was then working on his PhD at MIT. “So I came, I spent a day here, and I realized—’This is it!’” he said. “We packed the car with all our belongings and drove all the way across the country. It took about three weeks, most of it camping. My moving expenses were a bunch of receipts for campsites.”

Preserving access, reimagining education
Reif made clear that he intends to remain accessible to the MIT community after he assumes his new post. As provost he goes out for a walk twice a day, to “pretend to go get a cup of coffee,” as a way of fostering casual meetings with people around campus, and he described a recent conversation with MIT’s 14th president, Paul Gray ’54, SM ’55, ScD ’60, about the merits of keeping presidential office hours.

Among his top priorities as president, Reif said, will be to advance the frontiers of education and find the most effective ways of harnessing the wealth of tools now at educators’ disposal. “We should focus on educational innovation,” he said.

That focus will be a natural continuation of Reif’s recent work spearheading MITx, the Institute’s initiative to provide free online interactive courses to MIT students and the world, and then leading MIT into an online-education partnership with Harvard University, known as edX. “I expect MITx is going to really take center stage in a big way,” says Fitzgerald. “His vision for that really tells us something about his character.”

“There is a lot of experimentation that needs to be done,” Reif said in a press conference the morning of his election. “We’re beginning a new era. The good news is that not much is known, so everything is up to us to discover.”

Hail to the chief: One the afternoon of May 16—the day he was elected MIT’s next president—Rafael Reif met with students at a reception in the Stata Center. Of MIT’s students, Reif says, “the questions they ask make you grateful that the future is in their hands.”

Reif is also likely to focus on leading a major capital campaign, now in the planning stages, and furthering MIT’s global collaborations, including those that resulted in the creation of the Singapore University of Technology and Design and the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology in Russia. “Figuring out next steps in international relations will be a major effort,” says Fitzgerald. She also points out that the next few years will see a lot of renovations, including redevelopment of Kendall Square. That project, she says, is “an imaginative, large-scale collaboration with the city of Cambridge that will require vision, persistence, and goodwill—characteristics that Rafael has in abundance.”

Even as Reif looks outward, he is expected to emphasize campus learning as well. Canizares says, “He’ll be strategic in thinking about how best to engage MIT globally and in cyberspace, yet with a very clear grounding on the residential MIT campus as the core of what we are and I expect what we will be for a very long time to come.”

“a force for the good”
Reif said that he intends to be guided by MIT’s values and principles, and that among those he cherishes most are its commitments to meritocracy, integrity, excellence, doing what is right, and making a positive contribution to society.

“I believe that the job of the administration is to support our faculty, students, and staff, to enable them to do what they came to do at MIT: to advance knowledge, to educate students, to address today’s great global challenges,” he said. “I believe the job of our students and alumni is to make the world a better place, to leave it better than they found it … Above all, I believe that MIT—because of what it stands for and because of its distinctive strengths—has been, and must continue to be, a force for the good, for the nation and for the world.”

As he began preparing for his new role as president, he called for the MIT community to help collectively imagine the MIT of the future: “Let’s assess what we are doing that works well, and what we are doing that is not working well. I intend to spend the next few months listening to our community.”

By all accounts, listening is something that Reif does exceptionally well. “He’s someone who can hear views that he may originally disagree with, weigh your views with his own, and then reach decisions effectively,” says Lerman. “I always felt that if I had a reasonable argument, he’d listen and come to a fair decision, even if it was not what I was asking for.” Reif, he says, is “that calm, wise voice in the room.”

“He will be careful to include everyone who should be consulted on things,” Fitzgerald says. “He’s not a rash guy at all. But he is a bold thinker.”

Announcing the beginning of his “listening tour” on the day of his election, Reif asked members of the MIT community to be candid with him. “I love the fact that the people of MIT tell you what they think—even when it’s not what you want to hear! That is part of the secret of our success—and I hope you will not allow the ‘president’ title to stop you from speaking to me frankly,” he said. “Needless to say, the title of ‘provost’ never stopped you.” 

Reif’s signature dry wit should prove useful in his new role. “Everyone appreciates that he can bring levity to a tough situation,” Fitzgerald says. “He can make a comment that loosens people up. That’s extremely valuable in a large organization.”

“A splendid appointment”
On the day of his election, Reif thanked Susan Hockfield, MIT’s president since December 2004, for giving him “the opportunity of a lifetime” by elevating him to provost, adding that he learned a tremendous amount working with her. And Hockfield, in turn, said that it was impossible for her “to imagine any person who is better prepared” to take on the role of president. Calling Reif “a brilliant, farsighted strategic thinker,” she praised him for his “collegial, consensus-building leadership” and for his “unfailing ability to listen and to learn from different points of view.” She added, “And he does this without losing his sense of humor.”

Hockfield presented her successor with a copy of Robert’s Rules of Order that had been given to her by her predecessor, Charles M. Vest, who had received it from his predecessor, Gray.

Vest, who was MIT’s president from 1990 to 2004 and is now head of the National Academy of Engineering, said Reif “is one of the finest human beings I’ve ever known.” Noting “the warmth with which he’s being received,” Vest said that everyone he has spoken to about Reif’s selection “has commented first and foremost on his values and character.”

Gray, MIT’s president from 1980 to 1990, said that Reif “has a sense of strategic vision, and a great knowledge of the place.” He has “a manner of interacting with people that is superb, and very effective,” Gray added. “This was a splendid appointment, for everyone.”

Additional reporting by Steve Bradt and Alice Dragoon

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